Ukraine and the European Union
- Giselle BosseGiselle BosseCultuur en Maatschappijwetenschappen, Maastricht University
In early 2014, a series of dramatic crises in Ukraine generated headlines around the world. Most scholarly attention was placed on the tensions between the West and Russia, and the emergence of a new Cold War, especially following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its military incursion in eastern Ukraine. The relations between Ukraine and the European Union (EU) have often been reduced to debates on whether the EU was to blame for the conflict, having “sleepwalked” into the Ukraine crisis by focusing on technical trade issues and failing to recognize the delicate geopolitical context. Other analysts pointed to the EU’s pursuit of regional hegemony, which has failed to recognize Russia’s legitimate geopolitical and economic interests in Ukraine. In practice, Ukraine-EU relations have been more complex and nuanced, certainly when considering that Ukraine already declared its ambition to “return to Europe” and to seek EU membership with its proclamation of independence, in 1991.
Ukraine-EU relations are perhaps best understood along four levels of inquiry. The first is domestic dynamics in Ukraine. Since the end of the Cold War, all Ukrainian governments have underlined the “Europeanness” of Ukraine and have also by and large followed a pro-EU course in their foreign policies, including the government under pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. However, Ukraine’s European choice has often been limited to foreign-policy declarations. Even the pro-European and reform-oriented governments that led Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan Square protests struggled to introduce far-reaching reforms because of the power of the “iron triangle” of oligarchic rule, corruption, and financial instability.
The second line of inquiry concerns Ukraine-Russia relations. Since gaining independence, Ukraine’s strategy has been one of limited participation in Russia’s post-Soviet regional integration initiatives in order to safeguard its independence. However, Russia always used “sticks and carrots” vis-à-vis Ukraine to further its own policy objectives, ranging from offering gas-price discounts to cutting off gas supplies, imposing import bans on Ukrainian produce, and, since 2014, threatening and using the military to force Ukraine to acquiesce to its demands.
A third line of inquiry is the EU’s policy toward Ukraine, based on bilateral relations and cooperation through the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. The EU has approached Ukraine as one among several neighbors in its attempt to build a ring of well-governed countries along its borders. Although the EU’s enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe generated more interest in Ukraine, member states have consistently ruled out EU membership for Ukraine.
A fourth theme of inquiry is that of EU-Russia relations in the wider international context. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the EU clearly prioritized good political and economic relations with Russia over its relationship with its neighbors in the East, including Ukraine. Even when Russia annexed Crimea and when evidence of the role of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine had become impossible to ignore, the EU struggled to find a common stance on Russia.